News & Politics

Jim Toole, RIP: 10 Quotes From Capitol Hill Books’ Curmudgeonly Former Owner

DC has lost one of its favorite grouches.

Photograph courtesy Capitol Hill Books.

Morton “Jim” Toole died on Saturday. The former owner of Capitol Hill Books was 86, and in death, as in life, he has proven to be a tractor beam for words like cantankerous, grumpy, and beloved. “Part of his ethos was the customers were always wrong until proven right,” says Kyle Burk, one of the four former employees who bought the store from Toole in 2018. “Any time a customer would do something that he deemed totally wrong, his saying was: ‘This store would be great if it weren’t for the damn customers.'”

“Obviously,” Burk notes, “There are some logical inconsistencies in that philosophy.” But the store’s current owners nevertheless strove to maintain as much of the shop’s excellent bedlam as they could, and Toole stayed in the mix till the end. Below, some choice quotes from Caroline Cunningham’s 2016 Washingtonian interview with Toole that hint at what DC has lost: 

On why he stored foreign language books in the bathroom:

“That’s because foreign language in this country is in the toilet.”

On why he banned certain words from the shop:

“I hear ‘Perfect,’ I hear ‘Like, like, like, like,’ and I hear ‘Awesome’ every 32 seconds and it was causing me to have brain damage. So I try to ask people when they’re here to use one of the 30,000 words in the thesaurus other than, ‘Perfect! Awesome! Oh my God!’ When you’re sitting here for 20 years and hear that limited amount of vocabulary that people seem to enjoy using, it really [causes] destruction of gray matter.

On his cellphone ban:

“This is a bookstore, not a phone booth, so do not bring your stupid cell phone in—I don’t want to hear one side of a conversation.”

On the books he wouldn’t stock:

“I won’t let romance novels pass the door sill. … The other thing that’s pretty lousy is business. I take business books, business leadership and management crapola—I take them, but I stuff them in the business closet, out of the way. Only because people ask for them, and usually they’re all obsolete the night that they’re printed. I don’t let computer books in here because they are obsolete the day they’re printed.”

Photograph by Caroline Cunningham.

On retail design:

“Sometimes I put the wacko-stacko—the crazy people who are running for office around this country—in a separate section so we can all stare at them at once.”

On the shop’s Yelp reviews:

“I’m sure there are complaints by some people who storm in here and think that they own the place, but no, I own the place, so you’ve got to comply with my rules.”

On his backpack ban:

“Some people feel some kind of constitutional, inalienable right to have all their household belongings in backpacks, and so they run around the store smacking people and books, and they get upset when I say, ‘You can’t do that.'”

On his customer service philosophy:

“What am I supposed to do, sit here as the owner of the bookstore and put up with some miscreant?”

Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute,, and Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.